Melinoë (Greek Μηλινόη) is a chthonic nymph invoked in one of the Orphic Hymns and propitiated as a bringer of nightmares and madness. She may also be the figure named in a few inscriptions from Anatolia, and she appears on a bronze tablet in association with Persephone. The hymns, of uncertain date but probably composed in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, are liturgical texts for the mystery religion known as Orphism. In the hymn, Melinoë has characteristics that seem similar to Hecate and the Erinyes, and the name is sometimes thought to be an epithet of Hecate. The terms in which Melinoë is described are typical of moon goddesses in Greek poetry.
Melinoë may derive from Greek mēlinos (μήλινος), "having the color of quince," from mēlon (μῆλον), "tree fruit". The fruit's yellowish-green color evoked the pallor of illness or death for the Greeks. A name derived from melas, "black," would be melan-, not melin-.
Following is the translation by Apostolos Athanassakis of the Hymn to Melinoe:
I call upon Melinoe, saffron-cloaked nymph of the earth,
To whom august Persephone gave birth by the mouth of the Kokytos,
Upon the sacred bed of Kronian Zeus
He lied to Plouton and through treachery mated with Persephone,
Whose skin when she was pregnant he mangled in anger.
She drives mortals to madness with her airy phantoms,
As she appears in weird shapes and forms,
Now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness,
And all this in hostile encounters in the gloom of night.
But, goddess and queen of those below, I beseech you,
To banish the soul's frenzy to the ends of the earth,
and show a kindly and holy face to the initiates.
Melinoë is the daughter of Persephone, who was visited by Zeus disguised as her husband Plouton (Pluto). Although the wording of the hymn is unclear at this point, Pluto (or perhaps Zeus) becomes angry upon learning of the pregnancy and rends her flesh. The figure called Zeus Chthonios in the Orphic Hymns is either another name for Pluto, or Zeus in a chthonic aspect.
Melinoë is born at the mouth of the Cocytus, one of the rivers of the underworld, where Hermes in his underworld aspect as psychopomp was stationed. In the Orphic tradition, the Cocytus is one of four underworld rivers.
Although some Greek myths deal with themes of incest, in Orphic genealogies lines of kinship express theological and cosmogonical concepts, not the realities of human family relations. The ancient Greek nymphē in the first line can mean "nymph", but also "bride" or "young woman". As an underworld "queen" (Basileia), Melinoë is at least partially syncretized with Persephone herself.
Attributes and functions
Melinoë is described in the invocation of the Orphic Hymn as krokopeplos, "clad in saffron" (see peplos), an epithet in ancient Greek poetry for moon goddesses. In the hymns, only two goddesses are described as krokopeplos, Melinoë and Hecate.
Melinoë's connections to Hecate and Hermes suggest that she exercised her power in the realm of the soul's passage, and in that function may be compared to the torchbearer Eubouleos in the mysteries.
According to the hymn, she brings night terrors to mortals by manifesting in strange forms, "now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness," and can drive mortals insane. The purpose of the hymn is to placate her by showing that the Orphic initiate understands and respects her nature, thereby averting the harm she has the capacity for causing.
The translation of Thomas Taylor (1887) has given rise to a conception of Melinoe as half-black, half-white, representing the duality of the heavenly Zeus and the infernal Pluto. This had been the interpretation of Gottfried Hermann in his annotated text of the hymns in 1805. This duality may be implicit, like the explanation offered by Servius for why the poplar leaf has a light and dark side to represent Leuke ("White"), a nymph loved by Pluto. The Orphic text poses interpretational challenges for translators in this passage.
Melinoë appears on a bronze tablet for use in the kind of private ritual usually known as "magic". The style of Greek letters on the tablet, which was discovered at Pergamon, dates it to the first half of the 3rd century AD. The use of bronze was probably intended to drive away malevolent spirits and to protect the practitioner. The construction of the tablet suggests that it was used for divination. It is triangular in shape, with a hole in the center, presumably for suspending it over a surface.
The content of the triangular tablet reiterates triplicity. It depicts three crowned goddesses, each with her head pointing into an angle and her feet pointing toward the center. The name of the goddess appears above her head: Dione (ΔΙΟΝΗ), Phoebe (ΦΟΙΒΙΗ), and the obscure Nyche (ΝΥΧΙΗ). Amibousa, a word referring to the phases of the moon, is written under each goddess's feet. Densely inscribed spells frame each goddess: the inscriptions around Dione and Nyche are voces magicae, incantatory syllables ("magic words") that are mostly untranslatable. Melinoë appears in a triple invocation that is part of the inscription around Phoebe: O Persephone, O Melinoë, O Leucophryne. Esoteric symbols are inscribed on the edges of the triangle.
In modern literature
A Melinoe appears as a speaking character in The Judgment of Midas, a masque by Christopher Smart (1722–1771). She is one of two wood nymphs in the masque, perhaps due to the similarity of her name to Meliai, the nymphs of the ash tree.
Melinoe appears in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians young adult fiction series, where she is described as "the goddess of ghosts … . She oversees the restless dead that walk the earth. Every night she rises from the Underworld to terrify mortals." Melinoe shows Ethan Nakamura the way out of the Underworld, partly as a way of spiting the gods in their war against the Titans. When the heroes (Thalia, Nico and Percy) give chase, she shows them illusions of the restless souls of their loved ones that passed away; Percy, having "made his peace" with his dead, is unaffected and forces her to retreat.
- Orphic Hymn 70 or 71 (numbering varies), as given by Richard Wünsch, Antikes Zaubergerät aus Pergamon (Berlin, 1905), p. 26:
Μηλινόην καλέω, νύμφην χθονίαν, κροκόπεπλον,
ἣν παρὰ Κωκυτοῦ προχοαῖς ἐλοχεύσατο σεμνὴ
Φερσεφόνη λέκτροις ἱεροῖς Ζηνὸς Κρονίοιο
ᾗ ψευσθεὶς Πλούτων᾽ἐμίγη δολίαις ἀπάταισι,
θυμῷ Φερσεφόνης δὲ διδώματον ἔσπασε χροιήν,
ἣ θνητοὺς μαίνει φαντάσμασιν ἠερίοισιν,
ἀλλοκότοις ἰδέαις μορφῆς τὐπον έκκπροφανοῦσα,
ἀλλοτε μὲν προφανής, ποτὲ δὲ σκοτόεσσα, νυχαυγής,
ἀνταίαις ἐφόδοισι κατὰ ζοφοειδέα νύκτα.
ἀλλἀ, θεά, λίτομαί σε, καταχθονίων Βασίλεια,
ψυχῆς ἐκπέμπειν οἶστρον ἐπὶ τέρματα γαίης,
εὐμενὲς εὐίερον μύσταις φαίνουσα πρόσωπον.
- Jennifer Lynn Larson, Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 268.
- Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, "Orphic Mythology," in A Companion to Greek Mythology (Blackwell, 2011), note 58, p. 100; Apostolos N. Athanassakis, The Orphic Hymns: Text, Translation, and Notes (Scholars Press, 1977), p. viii.
- Edmonds, "Orphic Mythology," pp. 84–85.
- Ivana Petrovic, Von den Toren des Hades zu den Hallen des Olymp (Brill, 2007), p. 94; W. Schmid and O. Stählin, Geschichte der griechischen Literatur (C.H. Beck, 1924, 1981), vol. 2, pt. 2, p. 982; W.H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie (Leipzig: Teubner, 1890–94), vol. 2, pt. 2, p. 16.
- Anne-France Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques (Brill, 2001), p. 127, citing H. Bannert, RE suppl. 15, entry on "Melinoe" (1978), p. 135.
- Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques, p. 182.
- Athanassaki, The Orphic Hymns (Scholars Press, 1977).
- In the Orphic Hymns, the name of the ruler of the underworld is Plouton, and Hades refers to the underworld as a place.
- Edmonds, "Orphic Mythology," p. 100.
- Noel Robertson, Religion and Reconciliation in Greek Cities: The Sacred Laws of Selinus and Cyrene (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 102.
- Hymn to Chthonic Hermes (57); Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques, p. 182.
- In other mythological traditions, it had been regarded as a branch of the Styx; Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques, p. 182.
- Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques, pp. 184–185.
- Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques, p. 182.
- Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques, p. 185.
- In the Iliad (8.1 and 19.1), the dawn goddess Eos is krokopeplos; Eva Parisinou, "Brightness Personified: Light and Divine Image in Ancient Greece," in Personification In The Greek World: From Antiquity To Byzantium (Ashgate, 2005), p. 34.
- Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques, pp. 127, 182; Pierre Brulé, La fille d'Athènes: la religion des filles à Athènes à l'époque classique (CNRS, 1987), p. 242.
- Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques, pp. 182, 185.
- Gottfried Hermann , Orphica (Leipzig, 1805), p. 340.
- Hermann, Orphica, p. 340.
- Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques, p. 185ff.
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Demigod Files (Hyperion Books, 2000), n.p.
- Melinoe at the Theoi Project